Monday, August 26, 2013

Excuse me while I complain about standardized testing

During my time as an instructional para at an elementary school, one of my jobs was to help students with their writing. It was one of my favorite parts of my job. But there were times when it was also the most frustrating.

The methods I saw being used to teach kids how to be "competent writers" completely stunk. Now, I'm not a writing teacher, but I am a writer, and I'm pretty sure I know competent writing when I see it. But what was being taught to those kids wasn't how to write competently. It was how to write like a robot.

Fourth grade classes would spend weeks in preparation for a standardized test called the "Analytical Writing Assessment," or AWA. To prepare for this all-important writing test, students would first be given a writing prompt. Something thrilling and inspirational like, "Describe a time when you went somewhere fun." They then would be given a limited amount of time (less than an hour) to do their prewriting. Prewriting usually entailed creating a four square, a web, or some other way of organizing ideas.

Now, I'm not knocking prewriting. Kids need to be taught to organize their ideas if they want their writing to be understood. No problem there.

The problem came when students would draft and revise their essays according to the rubric by which they would be graded. Why was that a problem?

Because nothing stifles creativity like a stupid rubric.

I found myself, more often than not, stifling groans when trying to convince students that there was more to voice and word choice than inserting the "acceptable" number of "juicy words" into their text. I swallowed screams of frustration when seeing kids try to strengthen their writing by adding "ly" words in front of verbs. And imagine my horror when witnessing their teachers instruct them to use a different word for "said" in every instance of dialogue. As if that weren't bad enough, even students who were naturally gifted writers were forbidden from using anything but the standard "transitional phrases" when transitioning from one paragraph to the next.

And do you know why? Because those things would be tallied and scored based on a rubric some regulator designed in order to teach our children how to excel at written communication.

So, kids learned a formula--adjective (x 3) + subject + adverb + verb = well-written sentence--and were taught that it would give their writing "voice." They were told to use specific transitional phrases because it would keep their writing organized. And, they were told the lie that the word "said" is boring and therefore should be used sparingly, if ever.

I'm sorry, teachers, but voice is not something that can be tallied on a rubric. You can teach kids how to use a thesaurus. You can encourage kids to use "juicy words" in their writing. But if you nod in approval when your students string vocabulary words together in juicy word chains, and call it "voice," then you are deluding yourselves and, worse, your students.

And it's all because of a stupid standardized test. Maybe if our kids' educators weren't so worried that their students wouldn't "test well," they could focus on teaching their students how to (really) write well. Because teaching them how to pass a writing test isn't doing the trick.

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